Words || Georgia Drewe
You can be forgiven for forgetting that we live in a multicultural and sexually diverse society that is roughly 50 per cent men and 50 per cent women, because according to the media, we live in Straight White Male World – by far the worst theme park imaginable. However this media fantasy world is not 100 per cent men. No, that would be gay – I mean, sexist. No, no, we have tokenism – a widely used tactic of sexist, racist, and homophobic producers whereby they include one singular member of a minority group into the larger group of characters and call it a day.
Enter the trope: interesting and eclectic group of guys, and their friend: The Girl. Singular. One girl. The inclusion of one solo female in a group of men is known as the Smurfette Principle, named after the truly next-level setup of well-known children’s show The Smurfs, wherein an entire Smurf civilisation exists with only one female. And we can tell she’s female because she’s ‘sexy’.
But isn”t this incredibly sexist? I hear you say. This can’t still be a thing! Society has come in leaps and bounds, woman can vote, we’ve achieved equality! Oh, my sweet summer child. Unfortunately, yes, this trope is still a thing, and a popular thing, at that.
Take as an example of one of the most popular and widely watched comedy shows of all time, famous for making the masses feel like they have a vague grasp on science and nerd culture. That’s right, please welcome to the stage … The Big Bang Theory. While in recent seasons its small core cast has expanded to include not one but TWO more women, who happen to be scientists as well and display something close to autonomy, the main premise of the show was a prime example of the ‘Solo Female’ trope. You had a colourful cast comprised of Sleazy McManChild, Endearing-but-racially-stereotypical Diversity Character, Eclectic-for-comedy-reasons Man, and the time-honoured comedy tradition, the Straight Guy. Sounds like the worst superhero group ever. To offset this masculine mess of quirky people, they have one female character; the hot neighbour, Penny – a truly groundbreaking character whose defining traits are being really hot, a girl, and really dumb compared to the host of genius guys. Genius guys who are adorably socially inept, of course, because pretty girls aren’t smart and smart people can’t function in the real world. What a premise.
Curious about how many other offenders are out there, I posed the question to some friends in a group chat and asked them to pour forth the names of all the shows, books and movies containing this ‘Solo Female’ trope that they could think of off the top of their heads. I went to make myself a cup of coffee and returned a few minutes later to over 50 messages – a ridiculous amount of insanely popular texts, many of which have become cultural icons, only feature one female in an ensemble of men.
The Avengers. Black Books. The IT Crowd. Fantastic Four. Justice League. The Fast And The Furious. Star Wars. Star Wars: Rogue One. Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Fight Club. The Hobbit. Star Trek (2009). The Hateful Eight. Ice Age. Guardians of the Galaxy. Harry Potter. Looney Tunes. Robin Hood. The Office (UK). Inception. Get Smart. M*A*S*H. Ghostbusters. Madagascar. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Borderlands. The Mummy Trilogy. Jesus Christ Superstar. The Rugrats. The Producers. Kingdom Hearts. Oliver. Transformers. Friggin’ Paw Patrol.
In defence of most of the above titles, most of the women they include are awesome. Gamora is a boss-ass-bitch who has no time for petty ass romance plots. Hermione is the greatest, and I will fight anybody who says that her character’s only contribution to the story is ‘girl friend character’. Wonder Woman and Princess Leia both happen to be personal heroes of mine. And that Pink Dog from Paw Patrol makes some valuable contributions to the team. (Yes, I’ve seen Paw Patrol. Many times. Don’t judge me.)
With so many iconic films, books and TV shows including the trope of the Single Female Character, the main question I have is … WHY? Why, in a world where females make up a large proportion of the viewing population, do commercially successful shows rely on this continued trope of a group of dudes featuring one girl?
One possible reason is that of marketability.
If you’re a human being with eyes who has at literally any point in their lives paid a visit to the consumerist utopia that is Kmart, you’ll probably have noticed one thing; that the merchandise and toys, especially those being sold to children, are incredibly gendered. This extends to the point where toy figurines sold for Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) were sold sans Gamora and Rey figurines. After complaints, Rey figurines were eventually added to the line of merchandise, but the main reason for excluding the female characters from the line seems to be that it wouldn’t sell as well to the target audience – boys.
That’s right. In this day and age of girls and women having the right to work and earn money – we can own property, too, in case you were wondering. Leaps and bounds – most movies are still marketed to boys and men as the default audience, while everything else falls under ‘Girl-Shows about Girls Doing Girl Things Which We Sell To Girls’.
Another reason the Smurfette Principle still exists is the extremely male-dominated nature of executive roles in Hollywood – the people calling the shots and making the films are disproportionately male. Because of this, Hollywood still hasn’t reeeally adapted to the idea that a female character can just be a person, who is a woman.
The underrepresentation of women and other minorities in media is an issue that can’t be solved with tokenism. A solo female to ‘mix-up’ the group and provide the nurture factor and a little sexual interest is no longer acceptable. And this trope is a little like pigeons in a city street; you don’t really notice it, until it’s pointed out. Then you start to notice that it’s EVERYWHERE.
But fear not! As a society, we’re changing – and as the next generation of watchers, readers, listeners and creators, it’s on us to be the change we want to see in the world; by making sure that our considerable collective power focuses on encouraging better representation. Or any representation, really.